By Paul Goble
Something disturbing is happening in Uzbekistan at a time when the new government is promoting a thaw after the death of Islam Karimov – some Uzbeks are taking to the Internet to denounce those who don’t speak the language of the titular nationality and posting anti-Russian comments in the Uzbek-language web.
Because this is occurring largely on Uzbek-language pages and because the Uzbek authorities have not responded to it with a crackdown or even criticism, this development over the last two months has not attracted much attention from the outside world, even though it has the potential to destabilize the situation in that Central Asian country.
The Fergana news agency provides a useful glimpse into this bubbling controversy, recounting not only how it began and spread but translating some of the hundreds of posts about language issues in Uzbekistan that have surfaced as a result, almost all of which suggest that inter-ethnic relations there are far less good than advertised (fergananews.com/articles/10196).
The story began in August when a university rector refused to speak Russian with a woman in the building they both live in but rapidly escalated into dueling posts about what happened. Some of them presented the rector as an Uzbek “national hero,” while others treated the Russian woman as the victim of Uzbek xenophobia.
Almost all of the Uzbek nationalist posts were in Uzbek, first in sites based in Uzbekistan itself and then in Uzbek sites based abroad, including one major site that is registered in Canada, while the defense of the Russian-speaking woman appeared almost exclusively in Russian-language portals.
What that means, of course, is that those who rely on one or the other alone will have a highly distorted view of what is going on.
The posts on both sides suggest a growing level of hostility among some Uzbeks and some Russians to the other side. It is unclear how large the group of what might be called language extremists is in either camp; but it is certain, judging from the posts Fergana translates, that the situation is potentially dangerous, especially if it leaps from the web to the streets.
That may not happen; but if it does, the Uzbek authorities and Moscow will have to confront something they have long denied – hostility not just between language communities (many Uzbeks continue to learn and use Russian) but hostility between the two nations, even as the number of Russians in Uzbekistan continues to decline.